Skip to content

Making It Up as I Go Along

The author of such classics as Get Shorty and Out of Sight advises writers: the best ideas come from the most unlikely places.

At the time I begin writing a novel, the last thing I want to do is follow a plot outline. To know too much at the start takes the pleasure out of discovering what the book is about.

I think of characters who will carry a story. The plot comes out of the characters, their attitudes. How they talk describes who they are. Dialogue, in fact, is the element that keeps the story moving. Characters are judged as they appear. Anyone who can't hold up his or her end of a conversation is liable to be shelved, or maybe shot.

In 1995 my researcher, Gregg Sutter, handed me a photo of a deputy U.S. marshal standing in front of the Miami federal courthouse, a pump-action shotgun held upright against her hip. "She's a book," I said to Gregg.

But first I auditioned her in a short story. The marshal becomes Karen Sisco. We watch her fall for a charter-fishing-boat skipper who turns out to be a part-time bank robber with a big ego. Karen takes care of business—no emotional harm done, she's cool—and I begin thinking about Karen for a book.

“I write with a pen. I can't imagine looking at a screen as I write.”

While I was looking at ways to introduce her, six convicts broke out of Glades Correctional Institution in Palm Beach County. I got details from Jim Born, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent, now a novelist himself. Jim describes how the six—all Cubans—tunneled out, and it gave me a direction for the book. Put Karen there, in the middle of the escape.

In Out of Sight, she arrives at Glades on business as convicts are coming out of the ground, sirens wailing, spotlights sweeping the area. Karen gets out of her car, opens the trunk to grab a shotgun, and a convict shoves her inside. He gets in with her, and Karen meets Jack Foley. These two will be what the book is about. Jack's buddy gets behind the wheel, and they take off.

For the trunk scene to work, it has to be positive, Foley and Karen natural, even funny without being cute. Karen says, "I'm not much of a hostage if no one knows I'm here." Foley says, "You aren't a hostage, you're my zoo-zoo, my treat after five months of servitude."

They go on like that, pressed together in the dark, chatting, disagreeing, but enjoying it. What they talk about reminds them of movies. Karen delivers Faye Dunaway's key line to Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor: "Have I ever denied you anything?" As in the short story, Karen is falling for a bank robber, but this time it's the real thing. I leave Karen and Foley thinking about each other. I know they're not going to walk off into the sunset together; Foley will go back to prison. But I want them aching to see each other again. I want them to take time out from who they are and spend one night together. Then back to the reality of the plot.

A photo of a woman marshal with a shotgun, and a prison break, gave me what I needed to write a love story.

I began training for the writing life in 1951, getting up at 5:00 a.m. and writing for two hours before going to work at an ad agency. My one rule: I had to start writing, get into a scene, before I could put the water on for coffee. Two pages a day in the early hours allowed me to turn out five books, all westerns, and over 30 short stories in the next ten years.

I read Hemingway every day to get into the rhythm of his spare style; then turned to Richard Bissell, who wrote his books much the same way but with a natural feel for humor.

In 1953 I wrote Three-Ten to Yuma and sold it to Dime Western for 90 dollars. Two film versions were made, 50 years and 50 million dollars apart. Both are good westerns, worth watching, but the remake misses the point of my short story: the good guy who gives his word with the odds heavily against him comes up a winner.

I began working on my eighth novel, Valdez Is Coming, sometime in 1967 and finished the book in seven weeks. It's the only one I started knowing how it would end. It was the culmination of all those other westerns that dealt with the man who is misjudged until it's too late. I'm not big on themes, but this was a natural for westerns. The movie in 1971 with Burt Lancaster is the truest to the book of the 20 or so adaptations of my work that have made it to the screen.

I was writing for the movies then, and a producer who missed out on the Valdez bidding asked if I could write another one, "sort of like Valdez, only different." You wouldn't think this kind of request motivating, but it is.

At the main library in Detroit I moved through rows of titles in the History room and stopped at a book called Night Comes to the Cumberlands by Harry M. Caudill. I opened it in the middle and looked at a chapter heading called "Moonshine and Mayhem." I closed the book and held it against me so the chapter wouldn't get away. I had in my hands the idea for my next book, The Moonshine War.

Then I drove to Kentucky with a writer friend of mine, David E. Davis, who introduced me to his uncle Jim Bill Simpson, a moonshiner for 40 years before he joined AA and gave up drinking. Jim Bill said, "What you do is shake the jar and look at the beads that form. When you see them half above and half below the surface, you know you're looking at 90-proof corn whiskey." My moonshiners in the book owe a debt to Jim Bill Simpson.

A lot of times I get characters and ideas for books from people I know or have read about.

For example, Maximum Bob borrows its title from Maximum Bob Potter, the hard-sentencing judge who gave evangelist Jim Bakker 45 years on 24 counts of fraud.

I had met Marvin Mounts, a Palm Beach County circuit court judge, who asked if I would give a talk at a local library. I accepted, we became friends, and remained so until his death in 2004. Now I had a judge helping me develop my own Maximum Bob, a lecher but entertaining. Marvin raised orchids on his wooded property. So does Bob, using them as lures, to entice girls to stop by his home for drinks.

Sometimes, when Marvin saw me in his courtroom, he'd bring up an issue for my benefit, something I could use. Marvin asked a man who robbed a bank how he was apprehended. The felon said he left the bank and a dye pack exploded, turned his take and the front of his clothes red. Marvin said, "Didn't you try to clean the money?" The man said, "Yeah, I did. I was arrested shopping with a bunch of pink twenties."

I began to add scenes. On a family trip to Florida, I had read a flier about Weeki Wachee Mermaids, girls who performed in a natural spring wearing mermaid tails. Gregg checked out the show and gave me a video. "You watch from an underwater theater," he said, "the girls making mermaid moves, flipping their tails, sucking discreetly on air hoses."

I was reading about channeling at that time. So I made Maximum Bob's wife, Leanne—a former mermaid who panics when an alligator swims into the act—have an out-of-body experience and begin channeling a slave girl, Wanda Grace, who was devoured by an alligator 150 years ago. Wanda says, "I be back when you needs me, Leanne." It drives the judge nuts hearing this squeaky voice coming out of his wife.

I thought my experiences in Hollywood would make a good novel. But I didn't want to do it the same old way. I wanted to show that a total outsider could make it in Hollywood.

I knew a guy named Chili Palmer who worked for Bill Marshall, an old college classmate of mine who was now a private eye in Miami. Chili was a former loan shark who did surveillance on cheating husbands. They made quite a team. Marshall could not open his mouth without saying something funny. Chili could put on a look of cool menace whenever he wanted.

I took some of Chili's backstory and created the book's Chili Palmer, my shylock who traces a deadbeat to Hollywood and becomes a film producer. At the end of the book he'll hire one of the many short leading men as his star. And that's why it's called Get Shorty.

Once I have an idea what the main character does, I say to Gregg, "See if you can find a high diver doing his thing without going all the way to Acapulco." A few days later we were in Florida watching four divers put up their dive ladder at the Miracle Strip Amusement Park. They told us what it was like to dive 80 feet into a 9-foot tank of water. One diver said, "Put a 50-cent piece on the floor and look down at it. From up there, that's what the tank looks like."

The diver I came up with is Dennis Lenahan in Tishomingo Blues. He's getting too old for this business, but once he witnesses a murder from his diving platform, he's drawn into the plot.

Making it up as I go along. I write with a ballpoint pen and scratch out lines and paragraphs, revising them as I make my way into the story, the characters letting me know what comes next. Once I've handwritten a page until I like it, I put it on the IBM Wheelwriter 1000. If I composed on a typewriter I'd spend more time x'ing out lines than writing. I don't use a word processor, I can't imagine looking at a screen as I write. I have to look at the words on unlined yellow paper, my only writer affectation. I used to aim for five clean pages in an eight-hour day. I'll settle now for three in a somewhat shorter day, continuing to revise to maintain the sound I want.

After 58 years you'd think writing would get easier. It doesn't. If you're lucky, you become harder to please. That's all right, it's still a pleasure.

Elmore Leonard's latest novel is Road Dogs (William Morrow, 2009).